After a promising first season as members of Hockey East, UConn Men’s Hockey took another step forward in year two with a top-eight finish. Playing in arguably the toughest conference in the country, UConn skipped the basement-dwelling stage and hosted a postseason series at the XL Center.
The Huskies did not emerge from this series victorious, but program clearly advanced. Head coach Mike Cavanaugh, about to start his fourth season at the helm, is hoping the upward trajectory will continue.
“I think the way last year ended left a bad taste in our mouth,” he said at the team’s media day. “That’s something our team is really going to strive for this year, is to be a team that builds itself to be competitive through the regular season and to be a team that wins a playoff series.”
UConn brings back a team that was mostly underclassmen, including an 11-man 2014 recruiting class. Those players are now juniors and with a talented sophomore class joined by another promising group of incoming freshmen recruits, the talent level has risen despite the loss of a couple of key starters.
“One role we can have is showing the young guys that there will be some ups and downs,” captain Derek Pratt said. “There are going to be times throughout the year where it’s dark at 4 p.m. and you have a big class load and there are some tough times. Personally, I’ve been there and I can help them with that.”
The Huskies return both of their top scorers from last year in Maxim Letunov and Tage Thompson. The sophomore duo will lead the top line after scoring 40 points (16-24—40) and 32 points (14-18—32), respectively, last season.
The freshmen have big shoes to fill after how well Letunov, Thompson, and a few of their classmates did, but Cavanaugh thinks they’re up to the task.
“I’m not really looking for one of them to make a big imprint,” he explained. “But what I’m looking for is for all of them collectively to have an impact on our season.”
All of the freshmen saw playing time during the exhibition against St. Francis Xavier and some looked like they will be contributing from day one.
Defenseman Wyatt Newpower saw time on both the power play and the penalty kill. Forward Benjamin Freeman also helped kill penalties, almost scoring a shorthanded goal when he found himself behind the defense early in the third period. Justin Howell was able to score as part of the UConn comeback bid in the third, scoring off of the goaltender from a tough angle.
Another highly-touted incoming freshman is goaltender Adam Huska, who will be pushing senior incumbent Rob Nichols for playing time. He had a rough outing in the exhibition, but at least gives the Huskies a strong backup option heading into the season.
UConn will play for real on Friday, playing Alabama-Huntsville at the XL Center. Puck drop is at 7:05 p.m.
Question 1: Who got your vote for 2016 team MVP?
Ian: Maxim Letunov
Shawn: Tage Thompson. He anchored the top line as a freshman, leading the nation in power play goals with 13. It takes a special player to do that, let alone a freshman, so he gets the MVP nod for me.
Aman: Rob Nichols. UConn’s goaltender faced a lot of shots last year but his play kept many games much closer than they should have been. His numbers were not as great as the previous season, but he was still integral to UConn’s success and came up big in key moments.
Question 2: Who’s going to be the 2017 MVP?
Ian: Maxim Letunov
Shawn: Rob Nichols. He is a senior and had an off year last year. He has competition behind him now and I think he will steal a game or two for the Huskies as a result. When there isn’t anyone behind you, complacency is hard to fight off. Huska is going to get rid of the complacency for him.
Aman: Letunov. In addition to being the team leader in points and assists last year, Letunov also led the team in my unofficial count of close misses on the season. The players around him on the first line are improved from last year, which will help him out immensely. It could be a very special season for the sophomore.
Question 3: Which game on the schedule are you most excited for?
Shawn: Maine at Fenway Park. As a Red Sox fan who grew up less than an hour away, it’s my favorite place in the world and being able to see UConn’s hockey team there is going to be great. Runner up is Boston University on November 19 after the football game against Boston College in Chestnut Hill. That’s going to be a fun day.
Ian: If this isn't unanimous with Frozen Fenway game I'd be shocked. It's a chance for UConn to play in a iconic baseball stadium.
Aman: Baseball stadium games aren’t that special to me. It’ll be cool, but I’ll take the games with in-state rivals Quinnipiac and Yale over that and also the Desert Hockey Classic, which will be taking place in Arizona on December 30 and 31.
Question 4: Best chance for a Husky upset?
Ian: I think they can beat any ranked team at home. The XL Center has proven to be a great place to play with the crowd support they get all the time.
Shawn: UMass Lowell. UConn is 3-2-0 against the Riverhawks since joining Hockey East after the sweep last year. UConn has played this team competitively, and should continue to do so.
Aman: Boston College at the XL Center on November 22nd. UConn is 1-1-2 against the Eagles since joining Hockey East, and it’ll only get better. Cavanaugh seems to always have his team ready to play against his former employer.
Question 5: Who is your guess for breakout player?
Ian: Alexander Payusov - he played with Letunov and Thompson in the exhibition game, performing well with two of the Huskies’ most talented returning players.
Shawn: Wyatt Newpower. He is a freshman and during the exhibition saw time on the first power play unit as well as the penalty kill. He’s a big kid and had a hard shot against St. Francis Xavier. That will do well for him in Hockey East.
Aman: There are a lot of candidates for this one, Karl El-Mir and Max Kalter come to mind but I’ll take Corey Ronan. He missed a chunk of games in the middle of the season but came back and with force by displaying solid playmaking abillity and netting some key goals.
Question 6: Where does the 2016-2017 team finish in Hockey East standings?
Ian: I think they finish 7th or 8th and host a first round Hockey East Tournament series.
Shawn: 7th. Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, Providence, Lowell and Notre Dame are truly elite teams and all will likely spend most of the year ranked and any one of them could take home the national championship. It’s just a really good conference.
Aman: I’ll go with 8th. While that isn’t an improvement in the standings, this team will probably be better than last year’s. UConn finishing 8th last year instead of 10th or lower came down to the final weekend of the season. Hopefully this year’s team can secure that home-ice postseason series with some time to spare, but it’ll be a challenge.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!